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Johannesburg - Drug mule Tessa Beetge was slipped out of OR Tambo International Airport on Thursday morning by her father and best friend.
Her aunt, Margie Olsen, who had travelled more than 10 hours from the Eastern Cape to fetch her, did not know about the diversion.
She wept when she heard that Beetge had been taken to an undisclosed location.
The best friend, also a convicted drug mule who had been released before Beetge, called Olsen soon after she had whisked Beetge away.
She told Olsen that Beetge did not want to face the huge media contingent awaiting her at OR Tambo’s international arrivals hall.
Minutes later Beetge called Olsen personally, also apologising for slipping out. Olsen said both of them were very emotional and the call lasted only a few minutes.
Earlier there had been speculation that Beetge and two other mules who had also travelled from Brazil had been detained by police.
But national police spokesman, Solomon Mokhale, dismissed this.
“She has arrived safely and has not been arrested. We were not expecting her to be arrested,” he said.
Olsen said she was relieved Beetge had arrived home safely.
She was hoping to see her on Friday after she had rested.
She said she had bought Beetge new clothes and was hoping to give her a make-over.
Olsen said Beetge’s return home was a bittersweet moment, as the person who had fought the hardest to bring her back was not there.
Her mother, Marie Swanepoel, would have been smiling down from heaven as Beetge landed back in South Africa, Olsen said.
In an earlier interview, Olsen said: “This is not my job. This was Marie’s and this should be her glory for all her efforts.”
“I think Marie would have just hugged and hugged Tessie if she were here today.”
Swanepoel, who had worked tirelessly to convince Brazilian authorities to set her daughter free, died of organ failure in October after a stomach operation.
She was in a coma when a judge in Brazil heard Beetge’s application for early release from the Penitenciária Feminina da Capital prison in São Paulo.
Beetge, 36, was arrested in Brazil in June 2008 after 10kg of cocaine were found in her luggage at the São Paulo airport. She served nearly six years of her eight-year jail sentence.
Convicted drug dealer, Sheryl Cwele, the ex-wife of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, and her accomplice, Frank Nabolisa, recruited Beetge and offered her work overseas. The pair are serving 12-year sentences following their conviction in 2011 for dealing in cocaine.
Olsen told the Daily News on Wednesday that the Brazilian government had paid for Beetge’s airfare home.
“This became their responsibility when they released Tessie from prison in February and had expelled her (from the country). She was then moved her to a police holding cell where she was awaiting deportation.”
Olsen said Beetge had indicated she did not want to be released on parole because this would mean living on the streets of Brazil with no money, friends or family.
“She was escorted to the São Paulo airport by the federal police and boarded a direct flight to Johannesburg with other South African prisoners returning home.”
According to Belinda West of Locked Up, an NGO that fights to get South African prisoners abroad sent home, the São Paulo prison had the highest number of South African drug mules because of the direct flight from Johannesburg.
West was also at the airport on Thursday morning to welcome back Beetge and a young man who had been detained for drug smuggling.
Locked Up founder, Patricia Gerber, said the number of South Africans in foreign jails was increasing at an alarming rate.
“According to a 2009 court document, there were 1 049 South Africans in foreign jails. However, behind the scenes, I was told this figure is at least 3 000,” said Gerber.
However, Nelson Kgwete, spokesman for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, said there were currently 893 South Africans imprisoned overseas.
Olsen said the South African consulate in Brazil had turned down her requests to speak to Beetge since her release. But they had kept her informed of developments and had sent her Beetge’s flight details, she said.
“We kept this information private for security reasons and concerns for Tessie’s safety. She was afraid of leaving Brazil.”
Olsen said Beetge was afraid about life outside the safety of a prison cell. Beetge had apparently received threats while in prison and had to be kept in isolation for a while. She said Swanepoel, who had moved from Margate to the Eastern Cape in 2013 following her divorce, had also received threats.
“Hopefully this fear will turn into happiness.”
She also said Beetge hoped to “re-connect” with her two daughters, who were 10 and 12 when she was arrested. Beetge’s ex-husband, Jan, has sole custody of them.
Jan said on Wednesday the girls, now 15 and 17, knew of their mother’s return, but he did not want to comment on whether they would be allowed to see her.
Olsen said Beetge had earlier indicated she did not want her father, Gert “Swanee” Swanepoel, present at the airport. Olsen indicated this was as a result of a private family disagreement.
On Thursday morning, Beetge’s father said he had called Tessa’s friend to ask when she was arriving and was sworn to secrecy.
“I was told Tessie didn’t want anyone to come to the airport but I drove up anyway because I knew that’s what she would want,” he said.